Perhaps it was exhaustion after last year’s annual lecture but I haven’t for some time written about Cultural Theory and my various attempts to stretch and apply it. Some recent conversations have led me back.
I have previously mentioned a new NESTA pamphlet by Geoff Mulgan and Charles Leadbeater on systems innovation which the eggheads define as
‘an interconnected set of innovations where each influences the other, with innovation both in the parts of the system and in the way they interconnect’.
Leadbeater offers the creation of modern schooling, the containerisation of freight and the emergence of social media as three examples of systems innovation.
Last Friday we held an interesting seminar to launch some research by the RSA and Campaign Company on social networks and values in Newham. Our first speaker was David Halpern, head of the Government’s behaviour change task force and all-round policy guru. One of his key points was that the evidence for initiatives focussed on specific changes in individual behaviour was much stronger than that for change at the level of groups or communities.
Most progressively minded people believe we can (and must) increase capacity, resilience and responsibility within social groups but despite all the initiatives, and anecdotes the evidence of what works is very limited. Instead, it is targeted one off innovations, like getting claimants to sign a commitment to look for work when they first attend Job Centres, that has delivered measurable change.
Earlier last week saw the Francis report on the Mid-Staffs hospital scandal. It had many recommendations but at core it was a call for, in Robert Francis’ words ’a fundamental culture change’. But as Chris Dillow points out in his always excellent Stumbling and Mumbling blog, the problem with culture change is that the institutions that most need it are by definition the ones least able to achieve it:
Insofar as institutions shape culture, the scope for cultural change is limited. At yet without cultural change, institutional change won’t yield the results people hope for.
The alignment is neither simple nor neat, but broadly we can say that one off innovation is most likely to be driven by an individualistic mind-set, that system innovation will tend to imply some kind of hierarchical oversight and that cultural change (focussing on shared values) is primarily the domain of solidaristic (cultural theorists unhelpfully call it ‘egalitarian’) impulses.
The obvious conclusion is that to maximise the scope for change (if change is what we really want) we should aim to combine all three types of innovation. But this would be muddle headed. First, such a combination is not neutral but itself a type of system wide approach (it’s a bit like saying ‘you want to just the two of us to go out together, I want to go out with my mates so let’s compromise by the two of us going out with my mates’). Second, one of cultural theory’s key insights is that the individualistic, hierarchical and solidaristic world views/methods always tend to be in tension.
So can we form any theories about how one should go about big innovation? Another obvious suggestion is that one should start with the simplest form of change – the one off innovation. Certainly, my hero, the Mayor of Oklahoma provides a powerful case study of system change (the transformation of a city) being accomplished by starting with a single focussed change (citizens committing to losing weight). But I suspect there was something in the culture of Oklahoma which led to fat fighting segueing to city wide change.
There will be many routes to change, especially as it is often the result of overwhelming exogenous pressure. But my tentative suggestion for the most promising route is that innovation will tend to start with the specific and one-off (easiest to do, easiest to validate) but that the cultural capacity for change is a critical in determining whether one off innovation can ripple out into system innovation.
This may lead us away from two frequently asked questions in stagnant organisations; ‘why don’t we innovate?’ (the one-off change question) and ‘why can’t we change?’ (the systems question) to a rather more subtle one; ‘is the culture of our organisation such that significant one off innovations can precipitate benign system change?’
‘Ah’ I hear you (singular) say ‘what kind of organisational culture facilitates the process whereby one off change leads to system change’.
I don’t know the answer but I like the question.
I am grateful to my friend Kirsty McNeil for recommending this impressive talk by the Venezuelan writer and commentator Moises Naim. The Senior Associate in the International Economics program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace argues that all over the world and in every major domain of organisation – politics, military, business – leaders are losing power. Some of the statistics he cites are compelling, for example:
In only four out of the thirty four OECD countries does the party running the Government have a majority in the legislature
In contrast to the nineteenth century, in most wars in the second half of the twentieth century it was the weaker side (the one with fewer soldiers and hardware) that won
As we know, the rate at which large business corporations rise and fall has been steadily expanding
Naim argues for a goldilocks view of power – it is best when it is neither too concentrated nor too diffused and weak. He concludes by saying we need a wave of political innovation and that it is coming but, frustratingly, he doesn’t say what it will comprise.
In my annual lecture last year I too argued that hierarchical power was crumbling and, in what I would like to claim is a more sophisticated version of my version of Naim’s goldilocks thesis, that effective organisations and society need a balance of hierarchical, soldiaristic and individualist power. Perhaps Naim will address the shape of political innovation in his forthcoming book ‘The end of power’ but while he is keeping his powder dry, here are three types of innovation I predict:
Localisation: The most effective forms of power will be those which best balance necessary central authority with maximum decentralisation. For it is, generally, easier to handle complexity, be responsive and build horizontal relationships locally. Concretely, this will mean a shrinking of the central state and growing status for local leaders.
Openness: Deep and long held assumptions – the ends justify the means, organisational culture can be self-serving, communication is about spin not substance – will wither away and leaders will finally recognise that they need to behave as if they are operating in a glass box. Concretely, instead of hiding difficult choices or pretending they can be wished away, organisations will try to engage stakeholders with their dilemmas.
Normative leadership: Leaders will ask for a mandate based not on their ability to solve followers’ problems but on their ability to inspire followers to create their own answers. Concretely, leaders will be more modest in two ways: promising radical change in fewer domains (offering merely openness and good stewardship in others) and being clear that achieving change is conditional on the response of the public (see the Mayor of Oklahoma for my favourite example of this kind of leadership in practice).
All in all, the new models of power should be more humane and liberating than the old but, as Naim implies, the big question is this: how much damage will result from the decay of old power and will new power emerge in time to address a growing number of currently intractable social and economic problems?
Etzioni distinguished between Coercive, Calculative and Normative Compliance. Coercive or physical power was related to total institutions, such as prisons or armies; Calculative Compliance was related to ‘rational’ institutions, such as companies; and Normative Compliance was related to institutions or organizations based on shared values, such as clubs and professional societies. This compliance typology fits well with the typology of problems: Critical Problems are often associated with Coercive Compliance; Tame Problems are associated with Calculative Compliance and Wicked Problems are associated with Normative Compliance.
As regular readers of this blog (lovely to see you the other night, mum) will know, I think that more and more policy problems are ‘wicked’ by which I mean they are complex, intractable in the sense that they can be managed but probably not solved, contested both in terms of diagnosis and prescription, and – crucially – solutions involve changes not just in policy and processes but changes in social expectations, norms and behaviours. The latter point links wickedness to the ‘social aspiration gap’ (which I have argued separates our collective hopes for the future from the trajectory upon which current modes of thought and action set us) and to ‘social productivity’ the idea at the heart of our 2020 Public Services Commission report that public services should be judged by their capacity to help people meet their own needs.
I have decided to try to delve deeper into this question of normative leadership; why do we need it, what exactly is it, what are the best examples of it in practice, what are the factors which build it and inhibit it?
Last week, following a tip-off from Caroline Haynes at KPMG, I gave the example of transformative normative leadership provided by the fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma – if you didn’t follow this link you really should, it’s a great story. My thinking is at an early stage but the working definition of successful normative leadership is ‘the achievement by those in authority of enduring and benign change in social norms, which may involve, but does not primary rely upon, regulatory compulsion or financial inducement’.
Keith Grint differentiates this type of leadership through three dichotomies: questions not answers, relationships not structures, reflection not reaction. This is a good starting point but I want to suggest other dimensions such as a focus on substantive mission not procedural means, a willingness to accept the risk of public failure, leadership y through exemplary action not mere exhortation.
My weekend request to readers is for more examples of normative leadership. It need not be mayors, or even politicians. It could be a head teacher, a social entrepreneur or a community organiser. But it is someone who successfully took it upon themselves to persuade people voluntarily to change their habits for the good of society.
This is the leadership we need right now. It is not the kind being offered by conventional leaders but rather than blame them, I am looking through this project to inspire them to believe it is worth trying to be braver and more ambitious.
And as it’s Friday, here is an old joke from the Soviet era to exemplify the failure of normative leadership:
Worried about the stirrings of revolt in the Gdansk shipyards, Soviet Premier Andropov takes Polish Premier General Jaruzelski on a walk in Moscow. He stops a young boy and asks:
‘Tell me, young comrade, who is your mother?
‘My mother is this great Communist nation, mother to all Soviet children’ replied the boy.
‘And who is your father?’ asks Andropov.
‘Why, that is Comrade Andropov the elder and father to the nation’.
‘And’ says Andropov ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’
‘My ambition is to be a cosmonaut’ says the boy.
‘You see’ says Andropov to a chastened Jaruzelski, ‘this is the ideological rigour you must instil’.
Back in Poland, Jaruzelski goes on a great propaganda drive in school, on the media and through every organ of the Party.
A few months later comes the return visit and the two leaders are out walking in Warsaw. General Jaruzelski stops a child.
‘Tell me, young comrade, who is your mother?’
‘My mother’ replied the boy ‘is the Communist state, mother to all Polish youth.’
‘And tell me,’ says Jaruzelski ‘who is your father?’
‘Why my father is General Jaruzelski, father to all Poland’.
‘And finally’, says Jaruzelski, turning to Andropov with a complacent smile ‘what would you like to be when you grow up?’
‘Oh’ says the boy ‘that’s easy – an orphan’.